Embrace the Suck

How To Get Better at Martial Arts

spartan race embrace the suck-.jpg

These are common things I see, or hear as a teacher:

  • "Arrrrgghh!!! Why Can't I Get This!?!?!"

  • "This is much harder than it looks!"

  • "Why is that person getting this so much faster than I am?"

  • "Clearly there's something wrong with me!"

In order to understand why martial arts, or any new activity requiring physical prowess (other sports apply but we are going to focus on martial arts here), is giving you a hard time, we need to look at the human brain. 

I have taught highly intelligent people over the past decade and a half, and yet, they can't tell you where their arm is located if they don't stop and look down at it. This is completely normal and certainly not an indicator of mental acumen.

What many of us fail to recognize in ourselves, or cut ourselves slack for, is our level of physical activity going into the martial arts. Maybe we played sports in high school. Then we went to college, got a job, and realized at 35 we haven't been active in 17 years.

Maybe we are a 16 year old and have lived in front of a video game console our whole life; never really using our body.

Are you frustrated with your training sometimes?

Are you frustrated with your training sometimes?

Maybe we are 65 and decided to take up Tai Chi to stay active, but we sat at a desk job since we were 35. See the common thread? All lack of use, and the brain has something to say about that.

The human brain is incredibly conservative. If something is not being used, then the brain ignores it. We have pathways connecting neurons in our brain, and each pathway connects from one piece of information to another, to another, creating connections (more below).

This happens with physical activity as well as mental learning. Compare it to your high school Algebra, [that thing you said you would never use in life]. Let's say for a minute that you were right; you don't use it. Now try to go do Algebra today. It doesn't work so well does it? The same thing happens with your body when it comes to physical movement.

When you have a group of common neural connections, it is due to your brain building relationships. Connecting one neuron to another neuron to build a network. Think of it as a power grid; transmitting information from node to node. Except this power grid shuts down lines that are not being used in order to save energy. If you stop using it, the brain starts overwriting these connections.

Pathways grow dormant, and new information, information that is relevant to whatever we are doing in our life NOW, is what is going to take precedence. If physical activity is not at the forefront in our life, then atrophy sets in; physical AND mental.

The brain does not waste time and energy trying to keep things 'alive' that are not useful to it's purpose. If we were a star athlete in college, we will still have pathways for those actions in our prior sport, but they have faded. If we return to the sport in our 30's, we will probably stumble a bit in the beginning, but may pick things back up relatively quickly after the initial climb.

Understanding The Neural Network


Your brain is full of billions of neurons. When you start training in martial arts, you may develop a neuron for a block you learned. You know the block, you practiced the block, and it is part of you. You also developed a neuron for a punch. Now when someone punches you, you block, but you don't punch. Why? No connection. So after practicing for a while, and seeing similar circumstances, one day you are comfortable enough with your blocking and someone taking a swing at you, that you see an opening and throw a counter punch. Your brain then creates a connection from the punch neuron, to the block neuron and you will know to respond that way the next time.

Let's add a piece. Now the person punches. You block. You counter punch, but suddenly your punch misses. The person slips. Now you stand there for a second unsure what to do next. Why? You don't have the connection laid yet. Like trying to cross from Boston to San Diego in your car, but there are no roads to connect you there.

Grappling example: You learn how to do an armbar. Neuron is mapped. You learn how to Triangle choke from guard. Neuron mapped. Now you are fighting with an opponent in your guard and you go for an armbar. An armbar that you are quite successful at and have trained thoroughly. Your opponent pulls the arm before you can secure it. You lose the submission and have to start over with something else. Or instead, you learn how to snap on a triangle when they pull the arm. You have mapped a connection between the two submissions, and your next response is to immediately counter their counter with another submission. Something that is impossible to do when you have not mapped out either neuron, or built the connection between them. 

The more you train, and the more experiences happen to you in the arts (failures most importantly), the more neurons you build connections to as you find solutions. Eventually you get a web of connections, and when faced with unfamiliar stimuli, you have a response. The better you get, the more likely you are to have a 'proper' response to this new threat or action.

It would be impossible to train every single scenario/outcome that can happen. That supercomputer residing inside your skull would take 100's of years to try and calculate all those responses. And, training students that way would result in absolute disaster. Instead, we train principles, and we train with randomness and variability, and the results we get are far superior.

Your left foot. NOOOO!!! YOUR OTHER LEFT FOOT!!!
From a teacher's perspective, it can be extremely frustrating to tell someone to move their left, or right foot, and have them not know where their leg is. I have been in schools where teachers have thrown out students and told them - "This is not for you." I wholeheartedly disagree with this statement, even though at times I confess to have watched students and wondered if they were ever going to get it. [meditate]

Someone could be the next one to pass on the art, but you turned them off of martial arts for good because they didn't get it right away.

Patience and understanding are easier said than done, but they are necessary when teaching your art to ALL those who wish to receive it. Someone with long periods lacking physical activity is going to take longer to get up to speed with basic movement than a seasoned athlete. It's like trying to teach a child at 5 or 6 to do Fine Motor Function, when at that age they should be learning Gross Motor Function. You can't put the cart before the horse.

Military versus Civilian Style Training

Holly playing in the mud at a Spartan Race.

Holly playing in the mud at a Spartan Race.

When teaching adults and teaching people who are not REQUIRED to stand there and take your punishment, you have to have some flexibilty, and draw out the timeline for success. You can't just scream at them until they get it (flashbacks of boot camp). Unless you are training people for combat in a condensed period of time. But then, you shouldn't be teaching in-depth martial arts, you should be teaching self-defense systems like Krav Maga. Simplified, and meant for short training, not mastering high levels of skill. 

To be honest, the drill instructors in boot camp have a hell of a job to do. 8 weeks to turn goofy, uncoordinated, head up their ass teenagers, into lean, mean, fighting machines. This is not an easy task, and our lives depend on getting it right. Quickly. However, we are a captive audience; by choice, or not.

If you are teaching out of your garage and do not need to sustain yourself, or you are trying to train people as quickly as possible, then you can cherry pick your students and kick out (directly, or indirectly) the one's that won't get up to speed fast enough. But...if you are interested in creating a strong community of martial artists that help one another grow and learn, and accept people of all skill and talent levels amongst their ranks, then keep in mind not everyone has been training for our arts their entire life. Some will need more time and patience in the process.

One approach I like to use in thinking about this, is drawing. When you want to draw a human face, you don't start by drawing every freckle, line, or hair. You start with a rough circle for the head, and rough circles for the eyes, nose, mouth, ears. Then, you begin to create finer and finer circles and lines. Adding more and more detail as you go. Martial Arts is no different. Don't feel like your ROUGH DRAFT is supposed to be a MASTERPIECE.

All black belts are not created equal. All black belts are not created in the same amount of time.


photos courtesy of Max Kotchouro


Buonomano, Dean. Brain Bugs: How the Brain's Flaws Shape Our Lives. New York: W.W. Norton, 2011. Print.

"The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science Paperback – December 18, 2007." The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science: Norman Doidge: 9780143113102: Amazon.com: Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.

Randy Brown

MISSION - To empower you through real martial arts training. Provide you a welcoming atmosphere to train in a safe manner with good people that you can trust.